Murder rates have dropped during the last decade. Same with rape, robbery, assault, burglary, and theft. Yet somehow we're in the midst of the greatest mug shot epidemic the world has ever known.
Every year, more than 14 million people are arrested in the U.S.—and you've probably seen half of them. On the Web, in newspapers, and over the airwaves, the mug shot is king, the signature form of narrative in the Twitter Age. What else communicates so much specificity and mystery so concisely? What else packs so much into a single image: humor, tragedy, unparalleled guidance on which neck tattoos to avoid? It doesn't hurt that mug shots can still deliver the illicit charge that comes with nonconsensual disclosure. Sure, there are a few beaming boozeheads and upbeat probation violators who spoil the mood by, well, mugging for the cameras. But most mug shot subjects look profoundly unexcited to be starring in their very own episode of Punk'd: Law Enforcement Edition. Amid our current plague of recidivist exhibitionists, such reticence is a rare commodity. Who isn't going to look?
An ever-growing number of law enforcement agencies and media outlets are happy to capitalize on our voyeuristic interest. If you want to know which city has cuter hookers, St. Paul or Peoria, their official city websites regularly publish mug shots of recently arrested prostitutes and johns. (St. Paul wins by a nose.) If you'd like to see who's doing most of the drunk driving or shoplifting on Long Island, Newsday.com now maintains an extensive gallery of local arrestees. (Websites for other newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, have featured Newsday's mug shots too, presumably so readers in every part of the country can know whom to avoid if they ever find themselves in Sag Harbor.) Specialized sites such as Mugshots.com and TheSmokingGun.com curate their collections with a more discerning eye, featuring only the famous, or those with defiantly unrepentant hair, or those who, in addition to all the usual traumas and humiliations that come with arrest, have the misfortune of being heckled by their own clothing during their mug shot sessions. Smile, grim-looking sexual predator in the World's Greatest Dad T-shirt: You're about to become famous!
In the 1880s, when a French crime fighter named Alphonse Bertillon pioneered the mug shot as a unique form of portraiture, the photographs he took were expected to do one thing: Help establish an individual's identity at a time when driver's licenses, fingerprint files, and Facebook pages didn't exist. Today mug shots are still used to identify, but we also want them to punish, deter, and entertain. Unfortunately, they do such a good job of the latter that we've been indifferent to the ways they short-circuit due process. But while we're gawking at the haunted eyes of a Midwestern meth freak or the haunted hair of Nick Nolte, cops across America are using virtual rogues' galleries to normalize the idea that the government has the right to punish you without bothering to convict you of a crime.
Perhaps because mug shots don't need much value adding from would-be Pulitzer winners to capture a reader's attention, publishing them is not the shortest path to praise from journalistic elites. Yet what informed citizen isn't interested in knowing exactly who's getting arrested in his neighborhood, and for what? In the crowning example of mug shot proliferation, the last decade has seen the creation of numerous ink-on-wood-pulp newspapers devoted exclusively to the form, with names like Gotch-ya!, Busted, Cellmates, and The Slammer. They're typically founded by undercapitalized entrepreneurs with little or no prior experience in the newspaper business. They're most often distributed at gas stations, liquor stores, and corner markets in the sort of neighborhoods more likely to be featured on Cops than HGTV. They go for $1 apiece, and at a time when traditional newspapers can barely give their products away, they're selling like hotcakes. Local MugSHOTS is the Gannett Group of the genre. Introduced in 2000, the 12-page tabloid features 250 to 300 mug shots per issue. Dozens of county-specific versions appear in 10 states now. Its publisher, who goes by the name Max Cannon, says approximately 250,000 copies in all are printed for the various biweekly editions, and that some counties have print runs of as high as 20,000.
Thanks to those 14 million annual arrestees, there is plenty of room for growth. But are all mug shots fit to print? Public shaming may represent a cost-effective alternative to traditional forms of sentencing, and as public shaming goes, having your mug shot appear on a police department website actually sounds a lot more agreeable than, say, standing outside a Walgreen's with a sign identifying you as a shoplifter.
If you do end up in front of that Walgreen's, however, you've also spent some time in front of a judge or jury, who ultimately found you guilty. With mug shots, that's not necessarily the case. The city of St. Paul, Minnesota, which started publishing photographs of prostitution arrestees in print in the 1980s and brought its operation to the Web in 1997, is regarded as the pioneer of online public humiliation. Following the city's lead, an ever-expanding list of law enforcement agencies now post mug shots of the people they arrest—but don't necessarily convict—in an explicit effort to deter crime.
In general, mug shots have always carried the heavy suggestion of guilt, as if getting caught in the act of being arrested is tantamount to getting caught in the act of committing a crime. It isn't, though, and that's one reason why until relatively recently, many law enforcement agencies, including those operated by the federal government, were reluctant to release mug shots to the press or the public. Indeed, in 1905 a New York City magistrate named Alfred E. Ommen was so concerned about exposing the head shots of possibly innocent citizens to the "public gaze" that he argued, in the pages of the Journal of Social Science, that "it ought to be a misdemeanor for the Police Department to photograph or measure a man merely charged with a crime."
While few of Ommen's colleagues in the law enforcement world seemed to share his opinion, until 10 years ago or so it typically took a Freedom of Information Act request, or in extreme cases a lawsuit, to expose a mug shot to the public gaze. In the Internet era, that has changed radically. In 1996 Peoria police refused to grant access to its mug shots until it was sued by a local attorney who wanted to publish photos of people who'd been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. By 2005 the Peoria Police Department had started publishing photos of arrested johns and prostitutes itself, on the city's official website.
Like most of these sites, Peoria's is careful to include a disclaimer that the individuals depicted on it are "presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law." But if there's a chance that the people on display there haven't committed a crime, why are they being punished? As soon as a law enforcement agency presents its online rogues' gallery as a form of deterrence, it transforms the pictures into a form of punishment as well. If appearing in this context is a fate so unpleasant that it can persuade other people to avoid engaging in illicit behavior, then surely it constitutes a penalty. And it's a penalty that's being applied without the hassle of due process.
We tend to overlook this fact because, frankly, it spoils the mood. The presumption of guilt makes it
easier to justify laughing at 23-going-on-zombie crack whores and bugeyed misfits sporting felony-caliber mullets. They deserve the derision they get—they're criminals! But the joke is really on us. As law enforcement agencies expand their powers of surveillance, as they encourage us to think of punishment without due process as standard operating procedure, we not only tolerate it, we click and click and ask for more. If America's citizenry were more uniformly presentable, and its mug shots correspondingly less entertaining, we might protest these developments more strongly. Instead, we simply laugh at the latest person guilty of wearing a cow costume while being arrested, then pass along the link to our friends.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.